Saturday, October 3, 2015

50 Year Anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1965: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Today is the 50th anniversary of the signing into law of the Immigration Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act), which often is celebrated as a shining achievement of the civil rights era because of its much-publicized elimination of discriminatory restrictions on immigration from Asia.  But as Professor Jane Hong reminds us in this op/ed in the Los Angeles Times, there also were some adverse impacts on Latino immigrants of the 1965 Act:

"As the standard-bearer against communism seeking to consolidate support in Vietnam, the United States had attracted international criticism of its racist policies that it could ill afford. In a nod to U.S. interests in the decolonizing world, Congress opened the gates to Asians (as well as to Africans and eastern and southern Europeans) more widely, abolishing Asian quotas and the national origins quota-system as a whole in favor of a preference system based on skills and family relationships.

For Latinos, by contrast, Hart-Celler made the U.S. less accessible. Before 1965, immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries was largely unrestricted. It was Hart-Celler that brought Latino immigration from the Western Hemisphere under numerical limit for the first time."

As I have written  in a chapter in Jack Chin and Rose Villazor's new book on the Immigration Act of 1965, I agree with Professor Hong.  Despite the significant anti-discriminatory improvements to the American immigration laws, the Immigration Act of 1965 also made less well-known changes to the law that are unworthy of celebration. Intentionally discriminatory at their core, the changes in fact are wholly inconsistent with the extension of civil rights to racial minorities in the United States.

Specifically, the 1965 Act added a new, although considerably more sophisticated – and less visible – form of racial discrimination than the national origins quotas system, to the modern American immigration laws. The Western Hemisphere ceilings for the first time in U.S. history capped immigration from Mexico and all of Latin America.  Rather than unintentional, or reluctant, racial discrimination, Congress admitted its discriminatory goals and enthusiastically backed those reforms with an express hope of significantly restricting the number of Latina/o immigrants coming to the United States. The legislative history of the 1965 Act makes it clear that some members of Congress feared that, absent bold new restrictive steps in the Immigration Act of 1965, Latina/o immigrants might well overrun American society.  this might be described as the anti-Latina/o underside of the Immigration Act of 1965.

The truth of the matter is that, despite its decidedly pro-civil rights reputation, the Immigration Act of 1965 represents one of the first major changes to the immigration laws in American history that demonstrates an unmistakable intent to cap immigration from Mexico, as well as all of Latin America, to the United States. In so doing, the law established a sturdy foundation from which the modern American immigration enforcement state has evolved, with its glaringly disparate racial impacts on Latina/os.

Specifically, the Immigration Act of 1965 set the stage for the creation and implementation of a virtually unbroken series of restrictive U.S. immigration laws and enforcement measures directed primarily at Latina/os that remained in place for the last third of the twentieth century. With broad public support, those measures have been expanded dramatically in the early years of the new millennium and have resulted in record numbers of removals of immigrants from the United States – now running in the neighborhood of 400,000 a year, an increase of more than ten-fold in the last twenty years. Not coincidentally in light of the disparate focus and impacts of the modern removal machinery, the new enforcement measures year after year have yielded record numbers of removals of Latina/os.

In the five decades since passage of the 1965 legislation, U.S. immigration law and its enforcement have slowly but surely built on the anti-Latina/o roots of the law. As a result, immigration enforcement has progressively focused – some would contend almost exclusively – on limiting migration from Mexico to the United States. The transformation of immigration law has been so complete that many Americans today -- including Donald Trump and his supporters -- firmly believe that curbing Mexican immigration is what U.S. immigration law and border enforcement should be all about.   Indeed, one might claim that, over the last 50 years, the United States replaced the Chinese exclusion laws of the 1800s with something akin to the Mexican exclusion laws of the twenty-first century.

By re-allocating opportunities for lawful immigration from Latin America to Asia – and diminishing legal discrimination in admissions against Asian immigrants while expanding discrimination against Latina/os, the Immigration Act of 1965 transformed the relative mix of Asian and Latina/o immigrants legally coming to the United States. The Act, on the one hand, contributed to a surge in legal immigration from Asia, which historically had been stunted by discriminatory laws as well as the long travel distances from Asia to the United States. On the other hand, by placing an artificial ceiling on legal migration from Mexico wholly disconnected from the great (and increasingly unsatisfied) demand for immigration, the legislation simultaneously spurred the growth of a large – and consistently expanding – population of Mexican immigrants unauthorized by the U.S. immigration laws from being in, and subject to removal from, the country. These two dominant trends in immigration to the United States in turn contributed to noticeable changes in the racial demographics of American society in the post-1965 period, the public’s view of immigration and the need for enforcement, and ultimately the overall direction of U.S. immigration law and its enforcement.

Changes to the racial composition of the overall population helped to provoke the public’s sporadic outbursts of venom directed at immigrants and frequent demands for reform, as well as heightened enforcement, of the U.S. immigration laws. The new racial demographics of modern immigration also fueled the demands for a variety of changes to the immigration laws that would transform – some observers might contend that the conscious intent was to “whiten” – the racial demographics of the flow of immigrants to the United States. One well-known (and rather blatant) example of such efforts is the “diversity” visa program that Congress added to the immigration laws in 1990, which at its core was designed to facilitate greater migration to the United States from Europe. In the end, those legal maneuvers in combination greatly limited legal immigration from Mexico to the United States.

Click here for a NPR radio report on the unintended consequences of the Immigration ACt of 1965.


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